World Stages: International Theatre Festival – ‘Rupert’ at The Kennedy Center by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

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THREE AND A HALF STARS
The World Stages: International Theater Festival takes the center stage at the Kennedy Center, March 10-30, 2014 bringing together some of today’s most exciting theatrical visionaries presenting an unprecedented focus on theatre from around the globe. Twenty-two theatrical offerings from nineteen countries, and every continent except Antarctica, are represented in this theater Festival of dynamic stories examining contemporary issues and universal themes. Curated by Alicia Adams, Vice President, International Programming, thirteen fully staged productions will be featured including nine U.S. premieres, as well as four theater-focused installations, panel discussions, two staged readings, and two Directors forums.

The delights in this extraordinary assembling of theatrical treasures comprise World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014 – The Kennedy Center’s first theater-focused international festival!

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Sean O'Shea and Guy Edmonds. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Sean O’Shea and Guy Edmonds. Photo by Jeff Busby.

 The Man, The Myth, The Guilty Pleasure – Review: Rupert

One of Australia’s best known and prolific playwrights, David Williamson takes on Keith Rupert Murdoch, one of the juggernaut media moguls of all time, in his newly penned work, Rupert. Rupert Murdoch is a maverick who is admired as much as he is feared.  There is little question that Murdoch has built (bought) the most powerful media empire in modern history. He also is connected to the greatest media scandal of modern times.

Rupert is the eponymous new commissioned work from The Melbourne Theatre Company which premiered there in July 2013, but the show is making its international premiere at the Kennedy Center in the Eisenhower Theater as part of the World Stages: International Theatre Festival, and the sole Australian theater company represented. The Melbourne Theatre Company, Australia’s oldest professional theater company founded in 1953 and this is the first international performance in more than 30 years for MTC.

Described as a ‘bio play on adrenaline’, the dramaturgical solutions of translating the biography of a towering personality like Rupert for the stage is not easy. Williamson, who has written forty-five plays including The Removalists, Don’s Party, and Emerald City, has called the Rupert play, cabaret.

Murdoch’s business life spans more than 60 years. In a series of sketches director Lee Lewis has created an unconventional, revue-style, epic presentation imagining of the life and times of this elusive enigma who continues to influence and shape our world.

The portrait we see in Rupert is the story of his life, but mostly, it’s the one-dimensional story of his business life.

The theatricality is best displayed with the direct address, and actors speaking straight out into the theatre. It’s an incredible journey, but unless you are geekly fascinated with media acquisitions, or enjoy a soft-peddled demonstration of Murdoch’s ruthless, meteoric climb to a net worth of over $13 billion, this production doesn’t offer anything new.

Rupert is a night of engaging talent and limited entertainment.  Does the play raise any questions in the audience’s mind? Perhaps. Does Rupert answer any questions? Certainly not. There are no a-ha moments to be discovered. This is a case where fewer career highlights would have stronger impact if more authentic, revealing interactions could have been found. What is needed is a refined script creating a three-dimensional character.

Much is already known about the lavish lifestyle, business wheeling dealing and political maneuvering of Rupert Murdoch. Perhaps less known is that his father who also was a publishing/newspaper man and the pressing high standards of his mother. Groomed from an early age to take over the family business, I found the most interesting Rupert “fact” of the evening to be the heavy speculation that Rupert Murdoch’s drive for power, wealth, and ownership comes from wanting to please his father who died at age 67 while he was at Oxford and the lifelong disappointment of his outspoken mother (who died in 2012, age the of 103.)

It’s not an entirely surprising revelation – but at least it feels personal.

Missing are the moments to explore Murdoch’s psychology, and the soulful introspection and emotional depth you hope to discover from a biographical canvas. What makes Murdoch tick? Any inking of insight into whom this man is outside of the things he owns is tap-danced around like one of the dance numbers in the show.

If you are looking for an easy, breezy, fun-fact-filled evening of Murdoch trivia and career highlights with doses of ten second theatrical ensembles segues, then you won’t be disappointed. Rupert is the show for you.

Rupert is Rupert Murdoch’s story, and this is Rupert’s play “told my way” from the billionaire’s perspective. As such, Rupert Murdoch (Sean O’Shea, now referred to – the older Rupert) casts a younger version of himself (Guy Edmonds now referred to as – the younger Rupert) to perform the role of younger Rupert in the sketches of this Rupert production. The two actors are the only two of the eight cast members that are listed as single characters. O’Shea succeeds in providing the authority, guile, and the self-satisfied Murdoch “look.”

The boundless drive of gusto and theatricality that Guy Edmonds provides as the uncomparable young Rupert has earned my respect. There is ferocity in the way he commits to his performance and thrives off the actors around him. He’s tenacity is exhilarating and his consistency anchors the production and makes the best of the script.

Murdoch’s business life spans more than 60 years, in a series of sketches and director Lee Lewis has created is a revue in an epic presentation style.The theatricality of Rupert is best displayed with the direct address, and actors speaking straight out into the theatre.

Lee’s polished direction features a scrumptious ensemble of talent and six performers (Marg Downey, Daniela Farinacci, Simon Gleeson, Bert LaBonte, HaiHa Le and Scott Sheridan) who play up to 60 parts and twenty roles each. The cartoonish takes on the characters as written may be tired at times and predictable, but the portrayals by these performers are not.

Many of the roles require a full costume change, while others are a simple transformation of gesture and accent. The wigs and costume design by Stephen Curtis are excellent, who also does a fine job as the Set and AV Designer. This ensemble truly is everything you could want to represent a colorful group of characters with humor, pizzaz, and memorable versatility.

Bert La Bonte is glorious in his various roles and consistently finds the humor without the overt broad stoke and is hilarious. How great is to see a person of color playing Ronald Reagan and Roger Ailes? Kismet. HaiHa Le makes the most of her characterizations, and is most memorable as Wendi Deng. And, Marg Downey is in character as Margaret Thatcher but it’s role as Murdoch’s mother (Young Elisabeth Murdoch and Dame Elisabeth) where she finds the opportunity in between the words to vividly express a welcomed emotional connection to her character (and this production) and create a real person.

Rupert has entertainment value and the second Act after the intermission is stronger visually than the first. Murdoch says he doesn’t use his newspapers or media outlets to gain officials’ favor or political influence, and we shouldn’t hate him because he’s so good at learning the rules of the regulatory game and aggressively playing them.  “If it takes a little bit of crassness to become the most powerful man in the country, so be it,” Murdoch says. Born in Australia, educated at Oxford, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1985. Rupert Murdoch has conquered publishing, media, and Hollywood where today he sits at the Executive Chair of News Corp. and is the Chairman and CEO of the movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox.

Between the play announcement in August 2012 and the World Premiere in August 2013, the script went through 50 drafts incorporating each new development in the Murdoch saga. Unfortunately, it that very last section of the play – the last twenty minutes or so of Rupert – that is the weakest.

In 2012, and continuing into the following years, the man behind the news became the news. Murdoch, his family,  and the family businesses were consistent front page headline news and tabloid fodder with the BSkyB litigation, the News International phone hacking scandal dubbed “Rupertgate” and “Hackgate” by the media, and his summoned testimony before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons.

It is at this point of the production that the crackling momentum in Rupert slows down dramatically – almost to a grinding halt – and the material feels heavy and stagnant. The ending feels tacked on, rushed, and the energy of the performers with their monologue/dialogue becomes talky.  Factual information is presented but they are simply words, the entertainment value is minimal. It’s unfortunate that the playwright didn’t take advantage here of the changing dynamics in the adventurous life of Rupert Murdoch by addressing the pressing familial issues, and dealing with old age (Murdoch is 83), death, and his legacy.

Bert LaBonte, Sean O’Shea and Guy Edmonds. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Bert LaBonte, Sean O’Shea, and Guy Edmonds. Photo by Jeff Busby.

As the show comes to a close and the staging is being taken away, there is one last definitive moment of defiance by both of the actors playing Rupert, to let the audience know that Rupert Murdoch is here to stay. Then the older Rupert (Sean O’Shea) ends with a determined declaration, “I am not finished yet!”

There is no denying the Rupert Murdoch has created an unmistakable empire, but is it something his mother and father would be proud?

In English. Recommended for ages 15 and up.

Running time: Approximately Two hours and ten minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.

Rupert plays March 14 and March 15, 2014  at 7:30vpm in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online. The closest metro station is Foggy Bottom/George Washington Univ. There is a FREE Kennedy Center Shuttle that departs from the metro station every 15 minutes from 9:45 a.m.-Midnight Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-Midnight Saturdays, and noon-Midnight Sundays.

LINKS:

Read Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ other reviews here of shows in the World Stages: International Theater Festival:

The Suit. 
Rupert.
Tapioca Inn: Incendios.
Harmsaga.
Death & the Maiden (La Muerte y La Doncella). 
Savannah Bay.

World Stages Festival YouTube channel.

Creating the play – listen to an interview with playwright David Williamson.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]